Extreme devotion

Light shows, sports stars, and prayer are all part of an evangelical stadium show designed to get teens excited about God

It's not the Colts that Clint Lathrop is cheering as he hurls himself to his feet in front of a crowd of 44,000 at the Indianapolis RCA Dome. The high school sophomore and cross-country runner is screaming "I want the cross!"

Although Clint enjoys his church Bible study, he is more shy than showy when it comes to religion. And though friends know him to take a risk now and then, it isn't on a dare that the teenager declares himself unequivocally for God.

"I had gotten on the wrong path," Clint, of suburban Indianapolis, says the next day. "I had put myself in situations – being impure, dishonoring my parents a lot, being a rebel. Last night I saw my wrongful ways.... I felt like I had to stand up. I felt God was calling me."

Clint's voice is among the hundreds that yell out, one at a time, from distant reaches of the sold-out stadium on a recent Friday night. They are responding to preacher Ron Luce, who urges them from his plexiglass pulpit to reconsider the priorities of popular culture – "stuff," popularity, sex, money, even athletics.

"The generation that the world cannot change is the generation that can change the world," he intones over a sound system that seems to be on steroids.

It's opening night of "StandUP: the Invasion," the centerpiece event of Acquire the Fire's 2001/02 stadium tour. The program is part of Teen Mania, a nonprofit ministry that Luce founded in 1986. Its current swing wraps up this weekend in Pittsburgh, after drawing 250,000 in 34 cities, according to ministry staffers.

Old-time religion

StandUP is old-time religion, supersized. It's the big-league venue, packed to the rafters, with headliner acts and superslick packaging. It moves at channel-surfing speed, its production sophisticated, its message driven home on – among other things – sweatshirts, visors, CDs, videos, and books. But what might look like x-treme evangelism is at heart a new-millennium packaging of an old-millennium message: The world and its vices may seem like salves for life's wounds, but only a friendship with Jesus saves.

Luce asks the teens to eschew solutions that might seem easy. He likens their lives to their cars, and urges them to let Jesus drive. And he quotes Matthew's gospel (16:24): "He who would follow me must die to himself and take up his cross."

That makes all kinds of sense to Clint. "Ron was speaking, saying I need to give the keys to God. For me, that was it, right there. That was my calling: Let God start the ignition. As soon as I did it, I was lighter. My soul was lighter."

As he claims the cross, Clint joins the stream of teens making its way toward the massive stage from all reaches of the football dome. Some stumble. Some link arms. Makeup gets smeared and tissues get wadded up in hands. Hundreds and hundreds come forward, take a knee, and huddle, as the rest of the stadium prays over them.

The altar call is classic; the smoke machines an up-to-date touch.

"I know it sounds ridiculous. I know it sounds like a cliché," says Melody Molnar of the altar call. Recently out of high school and just back from a mission trip to Cambodia, she recalls her own experience of finding God four years ago. "It totally changed my life. I was the popular girl at school – the partying, the boyfriends. I was always insecure that I wasn't dating the right guy."

Now she doesn't care what others think. "I believe we are created for a purpose and to a plan – to serve others and to show them the love that God has given to us."

Ms. Molnar, now part of the StandUP staff, says that many who come forward leave a reply card for follow-up. Some are already linked to youth groups. Some will be referred to professional counselors. Others find help from staffers like Molnar. "Some call all the time," she says.

By carpool, church van, and bus

Most of the teens come to Indianapolis with church youth groups, which often include a number of "unsaved" friends. The churches are largely nondenominational and evangelical, though virtually all kinds of Protestants are represented. The groups come in carpools, church vans, and buses, having washed cars, taken up collections, and raided parents' funds and piggy banks to pay their way. One group has driven 16 hours from Pennsylvania, and along the way slept on the floor in the homes of families of a host church.

Others travel in style. Michael Young and 50 others from the Christian Tabernacle Church in Southfield, Mich., came 5-1/2 hours on a "luxury cruiser" bus, and checked into a Marriott. The church picked up the $32 per person advance-purchase ticket price for the stadium event, he says, and he and his family pitched in to cover the rest of the $115 weekend.

"It's nice and Spirit-filling to be in a stadium filled with people who feel the same way you do," Michael says. "It's like a boost of energy. You get stronger, and you can be a better witness for Christ."

A movement with momentum

Lee Grady, editor of Charisma Magazine, says the youth movement in the evangelical church has been gathering momentum since the 1990s.

"[Teen Mania] is just like one visible manifestation of something going on in the grass roots with teenagers. There's tons of Christian kids out there that are experiencing the same kind of energy and revival atmosphere."

Events like Acquire the Fire are literally an answer to the prayers of many evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, who have been praying fervently since the 1980s for an America they feel has been in spiritual and moral decline.

Many are of the belief that revival among youth signals the coming of a broader spiritual awakening.

"There are times in the life of a nation when it drifts away from God," says Mr. Grady, describing the nature of revival as seen by evangelical Christians. "And there are times when God draws near, when there is a national turning back to God, back to biblical values, when large numbers of people are returning to Christianity, and when the faith of nominal Christians is awakened."

Public meetings incorporating prayer, praise, and preaching have always been part of revivals, particularly the great awakenings of the mid-1700s and early 1800s, and even the "Jesus movement" of the 1960s.

Today, the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School is widely believed to have galvanized Christian young people. Columbine student Cassie Bernall, reportedly killed as she proclaimed her faith, is a martyr in the eyes of many of her peers who realized, Grady says, "there's Christian kids in public schools who pray."

The events of Sept. 11 further swelled the ranks of youth programs such as See You at the Pole, the college-oriented One Day, and The Call.

The Rev. Joseph Modica, chaplain and biblical-studies professor at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa., says that teens will survive without the big stadium show. But they do like the kind of experiential religion that comes with a weekend of uplift by popular heroes.

"Developmentally, it meets students where they're at," he says.

How best to reach out?

But even evangelical Christians are not always of one mind on how kids should "acquire the fire," and what they should do with it once they catch it, says Reverend Modica. One approach favors the "gentle infusion of Christian ideals into popular culture" with the hope of transforming it, he says.

A more confrontational approach seeks to impose change. Some pitch God-as-ATM machine, spewing answers to prayers, while others place value on the long-term relationship.

"Sometimes I wonder if we get caught up too much in the temptation to be spectacular," Modica says of stadium events. "In my mind, the most important thing is what happens after they leave the stadium, when they bring with them their T-shirts and 'Prayer of Jabez' booklets and mugs and key chains.... Let's face it, most of life is so mundane – it's the day-to-day trying to live out the Christian faith."

Starting early

At the StandUP, two-month-old Allison Benn is getting a jump on the process of living out her faith. The infant, sporting tiny green earplugs, is the youngest member of the church group from central Pennsylvania. Her mother, Jennifer, only recently joined the world of the churched, jumping in when she became pregnant just one month after praying to conceive. Before they turned to prayer, she and her husband had been unable to conceive, despite three years of trying. Now, Ms. Benn's husband teaches Sunday school, and the couple signed on as trip chaperones. "Her middle name is Faith," says Benn, looking at Allison.

Benn and the other chaperones seem undaunted by the tens of thousands of junior high- and high-schoolers in their care, and even the locals seem pleased to host the teens. Hotel clerks, citing previous success, gladly rent to hundreds at a time. Stadium security calls them "more polite" than a Colts crowd. "Water is the biggest [contraband] problem," says guard Judy Powell.

Inside, the teens even use the trash bags left for them at the end of every row. House lights come up and go down as speakers appear, then quickly vanish. Stage shows morph into musical acts, then into fireworks.

As emcee, Teen Mania founder Luce is part coach and part preacher, ever aware of the confusion and embarrassment that define high school for many of his listeners. Luce knows how to hold onto kids' attention, and has brought in marquee names to help. Among them are Superbowl great Kurt Warner; injured "Survivor" Michael Skupin; former Taliban captives Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry; Bruce Wilkinson, author of the bestseller, "The Prayer of Jabez"; and WWF wrestlers Sting, Russian Nightmare and Million Dollar Man. Musicians include Sonic Flood, Newsboys, Superchic(k), and Gospel Gangstaz.

But for all that, the teenagers say overwhelmingly that they are there to be together. Zach Woodward, of Warsaw, Ind., notes that "to a certain extent, being overtly Christian is setting yourself up to be in the line of fire. Nobody likes anyone who speaks up in any manner." Acquire the Fire, he says, "has always been known as an awesome thing. What draws me back is the awesome feeling you get in a place like this."

Matt Novell, of Noblesville, Ind., says, "It feels like we get closer to God when we come to something like this. It helps us to know there are other teens out there who are Christian." Students can see "that it's not unnatural ... to love God and serve Him."

For Luce and Co., this is a friendly house – raucous when roused and hushed when quieted. They sing when lyrics appear on the big screens, and while many wave their hands skyward, a few – lost in the music – improvise ballet-like arm dances in the cheap seats. With the exception of a pair of Birkenstocks here or a golf shirt there, this is a sneakers, jeans, and cargo-shorts crowd. There is little piercing, bleaching, or dyeing, and a marked absence of belly shirts. These kids are clean of mouth and quick to help. Their conversation incorporates little "churchy" talk.

But when asked about the experience of faith, they move quickly into a shorthand Luce calls "Christian-ese."

Phrases like "saved," "born again," and "I came to know Jesus" refer to essentially the same thing, Luce says, as he describes what others may recognize as a conversion experience.

While some people experience glimpses of God – in the vastness of the night sky, for instance – feeling embraced by a personal God causes radical change, spurring the believer to learn more about Jesus and to turn from a path of selfishness.

Luce believes the experience is available only in Christianity, and says stadium-goers share an essential faith in Scripture. "We believe the Bible is the word of God."

A rebel reconsiders

Monica Beiler recalls being "in complete rebellion to God and to my family" in 1997. "I had been living in a way I know was not pleasing to God." But "God literally showed me His love through some Christian girls at church who just 'loved on' me so much. They said, 'Monica, God loves you,' and I sensed inside me that this was God's love."

Now an intern at Teen Ministry's academy program, she adds: "In our heart we want so much for the teens of America to know that God wants that personal relationship with each and every one of them."

Many of the Indianapolis teens head home determined to help spread that word. Some hope to someday set out on a mission trip or work with a ministry.

Many just want to make ordinary life better. Matt Lewis, a senior and basketball player in the throes of the college-recruiting process, plans to continue his effort to be a good role model at school. "Some of my good friends are not saved," he says.

Meanwhile, Clint Lathrup, having taken up his cross at the RCA Dome, says he has thought of being a missionary. "But there's lots to do here, talking to kids at school and setting up to live more for God," he says.

At home, "My mom and I fight all the time, and we pray together all the time." He wants to honor his parents more, and he thinks the weekend's renewal may help. "The feeling I get from it is 'holy.' I didn't really know what that holiness means until now. It's when you get touched by God."

A cue from pop-culture marketing

Don't show Ron Luce a ministry brochure with a misspelled word. And don't say a church's effort is "pretty good for a Christian event."

Teen ministries too often settle for mediocrity even as popular culture blankets youth with the most sophisticated marketing available, says Mr. Luce, founder of Teen Mania. Luce turns to state-of-the-art methods to carve out his market share. "We serve a first-class God. Anything we do for Him ought to be excellent," he says.

For the recent StandUP stadium event in Indianapolis, that meant a $1.6 million budget. There were websites, 1-800 numbers, glossy brochures, and edgy mail pieces. There were leaders' kits and promotional videos. Talent got their normal fees, which ranged from $2,000 to $15,000.

Says Kevin Benson, marketing director, "We don't say, 'this is a Christian thing so give us the Christian deal.' " But Mr. Benson does admit his delight at having booked football star Kurt Warner more than a year ahead of time, at his pre-MVP rate.

In Indianapolis, an extra 100intern/staffers, decked out in black headsets,augmented the normal 50 to 65 who travel with the tour. They had hustled for months pitching the event to pastors and youth leaders, but it wasn't a tough sell, they said. Many groups had attended previous StandUPs, and others knew Teen Mania by reputation.

Admissions – $39.95 to $49.95 for the StandUP – make up only a small portion of the ministry's income, which chiefly comes from contributions, according to Teen Mania figures.

Luce, who is married and a father of three, earned a bachelor's degree from Oral Roberts University in Tulsah, Okla., in psychology and theology, and a master's degree from the University of Tulsa in counseling and psychology.

His reach is broad, and includes not only a TV show but a slew of punchy how-to books that introduce the skateboard set to such quaint notions as fasting, memorizing Scripture, and meditation. Either his wife or one of his children accompanies him on most of his tour weekends, and life midweek in Garden Valley, Texas, tends toward board games, ball games, and church, he says. The family belongs to the nondenominational Church on the Rock.

Luce started his nonprofit ministry, also based in Garden Valley, in 1986. Known for its foreign missions, Teen Mania now also has a 700-student post- high school academy, whose "interns" do much of the legwork to organize the national tour of stadium events.

Attendance at these events has grown from 8,000 in 13 cities in 1991 to 250,000 in 34 cities this year, according to the ministry's literature.

Its stated goal: to "globally dominate youth culture with the Gospel."

A sample of youth groups:

• The Orlando, Fla.-based Campus Crusade for Christ has 40,000 members in colleges and 250,000 in high schools.

• Young Life (Colorado Springs, Colo.) is active in some 450 communities in Canada and the US and in 36 other countries, involving about 490,000 teens.

• On Sept. 19 about 3 million US students took part in 'See You at the Pole' by praying around their flagpoles for schools and the US.

Church and Bible study:

• One-third of US teens describe themselves as 'born again.'

• Nearly 9 out of 10 teens pray weekly.

• 56 percent of teens attend church on a given Sunday.

• 35 percent of teens read the Bible weekly outside of church.

(Source: 1999-2000 figures from the Barna Research Group in Ventura, Calif.)

Products, entertainment:

• Contemporary Christian and gospel music hit a new sales record of nearly 50 million albums in 2001 (SoundScan).

• The Festival Con Dios, a new Christian music tour, drew more than 100,000 people last year.

• More than 14 million WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets have been sold in the US.

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